Israeli Party Picks a New Leader to Succeed Scandal-Plagued Olmert

A contest between "Mrs. Clean" Livni and "Mr. Security" Mofaz.

Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni.
Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni.

JERUSALEM—Hillary Clinton's famous hypothetical question about the 3 a.m. phone call has been repeated ad nauseam here in the run-up to Wednesday's vote to determine who succeeds Ehud Olmert as leader of Israel's ruling Kadima (Forward) Party and, very possibly, as prime minister.

It's hard to say which candidate has Clinton's role—the security maven, Shaul Mofaz, or the woman, Tzipi Livni—but when Kadima voters were asked in a weekend poll, "Who would you prefer answering the red phone at 3 a.m.?" 41 percent said Livni, 34 percent Mofaz.

And that wasn't the only bad omen for Mofaz, the former army chief and defense minister. On the overriding question of who would make the better prime minister, he trailed Livni, currently the foreign minister, by 15 percentage points in weekend polls of Kadima voters conducted for Israel's two leading newspapers.

The vote on September 17 could turn out much closer than those polls indicate, however. Mofaz, currently the transportation minister, is thought to have the stronger get-out-the-vote machine. He also may benefit from a backlash over a news story this week that quoted an unnamed Livni campaign staffer calling his supporters "chach-chachim"—a Hebrew ethnic slur meaning riff-raff and used in reference to Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern background. (Mofaz was born in Iran.)

A last-minute urgency, if not desperation, seems to have energized Mofaz's campaign. "I believe that on Wednesday, I will win... with 43.7 percent of the vote," he told reporters, citing nothing more than his advisers' polls.

Livni, meanwhile, is trying to shake her troops out of complacency. "Don't get intoxicated by the perfume of the polls," she urged supporters.

Although there are two other candidates in the race, they are distant long shots, so the winner is almost certain to receive more than the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Olmert, who faces a welter of corruption investigations, has promised to resign as prime minister after the election. But he'll remain in office for at least several weeks until the new Kadima leader can win a majority in the Knesset behind a new a coalition government.

Olmert's successor could find this a difficult task. And if neither the new Kadima head nor opposition Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu can put together a government, new elections would be called, leaving the country with a legally embattled, caretaker prime minister until as late as next spring.

In the meantime, in this week's first step toward a power shift in Jerusalem, Livni is the clear favorite.

Fifty years old, a tall, formidable, deliberative attorney and former Mossad agent, she is the "peace candidate" in a rivalry for national leadership that includes Labor Party leader Ehud Barak as well as Mofaz and Netanyahu.

Two years ago, she was alone among cabinet ministers in calling for an early end to the war in Lebanon. She's skeptical about the national consensus that says Iran will use nuclear weapons against Israel if it gets the chance. "The approach that says, 'Doomsday is coming, we're finished,' is incorrect," she told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. She supports the land-for-peace negotiations with Syria and leads the land-for-peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

But with Israeli politics awash in corruption and acrimony, Livni's popularity may owe more to her "Mrs. Clean" reputation and quiet determination than to her dovish politics.

As for her gender, it does bring a new, fresh, Palinesque element to her candidacy. For some Israelis, though, it also brings to mind the late Golda Meir, who is blamed for the costly 1973 Yom Kippur War and generally is considered one of Israel's worst premiers.

Against Mrs. Clean, Mofaz is running as Mr. Security. Given the facts of life in the Middle East, Israel has often turned to ex-generals to run its political affairs. But after the Olmert era, which has been marked mainly by corruption and a war in which the generals didn't exactly shine, Israeli voters might be in the mood for change.